#G4C Part 4: How to Use Play Test Results to Improve Learning Game Design

We’ve made it to Part Four of our Games for Change blog series. In Part One, we gave some back story about our game, A Paycheck Away. In Part Two, we talked about our first game design workshop. Part Three was all about our first play test…and the best ways to run them. The game will be an exhibition at the 2012 Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis on November 9th. Our goal is to change the conversation on homelessness from hopeless to hopeful. We are armed with a growing body of research in support of games for learning. While many are excited about the power and potential of games, it seems many folks are also hazy about what’s required to actually create a game.

Last week, I shared that we were about to do an early play test a game of a learning game we’re developing. A Paycheck Away is intended to help people gain greater insight into the issue of homelessness – and begin to look at the issue in new ways. It’s a board game. Here’s the stated objective of the game:

Object of game:Use a combination of opportunity and luck to earn enough money to get yourself – and as many of your fellow players out of homelessness – in the shortest number of months possible. The game’s winner will be the team that gets the greatest number of its players out of homelessness within 4 months.  As in real life, your opportunities will be constrained by your circumstances and by luck, good and bad.

Last week, I shared a process for play testing and typical questions to ask. Well, we asked those questions and followed the process outlined in to the letter in last week’s internal playtest.

Play-testing "A Paycheck Away"

Here’s a summary of the results we got from play testing the game last week. I’m not listing everything, but enough that you can see how you might document the results of your play test.

  • Problem: Can’t get through game in the desired hour length: Solution: Eliminate 2 months of play from board so we play for 4 months instead of 6 months.
  • Problem: Temporary and permanent housing options were confusing to some players. Solution: Move housing together on the game board. Label categories as  TEMPORARY HOUSING OPTIONS and PERMANENT HOUSING OPTIONS
  • Problem: Players were unclear how they got into a shelter if they didn’t start the game in one. Solution: Add info to homeless shelter icon on game board that indicates need to roll die to see if you can remain in shelter: “After 3 months, roll die to see if you stay. Need odd number to stay in.”
  • Problem: Players were confused by difference between “transitional” and “subsidized” housing: Solution: GIven time constraints of game, simply permanent housing choices by eliminating option for transitional housing.
  • Problem: Jobs take too long to come up in the Draw pile. Solution: Change decks of cards so that we have a JOBS deck. Combine the other types of decisions and the LUCK cards into another deck labeled CHANCE & CHOICE deck. This ensures that every player draws a JOBS card on every turn.
  • Problem: Martin, the player with permanent disability, ends up with little to do in game because he can’t apply for job. Solution: See above. Combining the non-job decisions and the luck cards ensures that Martin has greater involvement on most turns.
  • Problem: Players unclear on what to do with phone cards or how to pay for phone calls or for transportation. Solution: Eliminate phone cards entirely. Eliminate bus transportation but keep car with the goal of simplifying play.Add “transportation expense” that goes for either gas or bus without distinguishing. People pay it weekly – must pay it to apply for or keep jobs.
  • Problem: One tester felt it took too long to get into game play because of game set up. Solution: Organize game play materials into packets that are pre-done so players are simply opening a player packet that contains everything they need. Trustee role no longer distributes as players arrive. Player packet contents are specified in attached design document, which I updated today.
Essentially, as you document your observations and the comments from play testers, think in terms of problems you want to document. After the test concludes, your design team can then discuss and agree on solutions to the problems identified during the test. You update your design, further evolve your prototype into a more final format, and play test again.
We’ll be doing just that this Wednesday, August 1st, from 3 to 5 p.m.  - this time with complete outsiders to the game. (Remember I said you start with friends and colleagues and then move on to strangers. Well, we’re ready to let strangers play.) I will repeat the process and the questions I listed in last week’s post again to see if we’ve worked our way closer to a final game.
While our 4 part blog series has come to an end, we will have more to share in the coming weeks. I’ll share photos and outcomes of this next play test.  I’ll also share thoughts on the importance of a game’s “balance,” which refers to whether it’s too hard, too easy, or just the right level of challenge for your target players.
In addition to a blog post, I’l tweet out some photos during the play test so you see the test as it happens. If interested, check out my @Sharon_Boller Twitter feed or our @BLPindy feed.
If you happen to be an Indy-area reader and you’d like to play test, send me a tweet or comment on this post and we’ll see what we can do. After the August 1st play test, we’ll be scheduling another one for late August!

Follow A Paycheck Away on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook for updates.

Learn more about the Spirit and Place Festival.